When Bernie Rosch was drafted into the U.S. Army in 1965, he wasn't sent to the front lines in Vietnam. Because of his proficiency in advanced mathematics, he instead served in West Germany, where he worked with computers and missiles.
"I think, because I had been at Iowa State as a math major for a couple of years, when I got in the Army the test they gave didn't seem real difficult," he said. "I did well in the test and with my background they decided not to send me to Vietnam. I got lucky."
After reporting to Fort Leonard Wood, Mo., for basic training, Rosch, then 21, was assigned to a nuclear missile unit.
-Messenger photo by Brandon L. Summers
Bernie Rosch, St. Edmond math instructor, engages in discussion with his last period study hall students. Rosch was drafted in 1965 and served overseas during the Vietnam War before becoming a teacher for 44 years.
"We had targets over the border, various places," he said. "I was one of the guys who was aiming the things. I didn't get to push the Go button. That was officers. I was Spec-5."
Rosch was joined in Germany by his wife, and their daughter was soon born there. Work kept him busy, though.
"We were spending so much time out with the missile. We would go to various places so that they couldn't zero in on us," he said. "We'd be at one area, then we'd go to another area and then we'd go somewhere else. It was mobile, but it was pretty big. It was probably the biggest thing the Army had. If it had any more range to it, the Air Force probably would've claimed it. That's what they always told us."
While in Germany, he witnessed the scars and ghosts of a war from 20 years prior, World War II.
"I saw pictures of the town where I was stationed and, in World War II, I'll tell you, except for a big church, it was just about leveled," he said. "It didn't have any strategic purpose. It was a place where the bombers, in order for them to get back, they had to get rid of the bombs, so I think they just dropped them some places."
The people were friendly to the Army men, Rosch said.
"They thought it was nice I cared enough to have my wife and my daughter over there," he said. "The landlady and her son didn't speak English, so I had to learn German to pay the rent and buy groceries."
The days were not without tension, though, and Rosch was required to carry a .45-caliber pistol with live ammunition.
"Everybody did, because we were tactical and sitting there with nuclear warheads," he said. "We didn't want anyone to come in and try to do any damage to us or the warheads."
Rosch recalls one night in particular. War games were taking place in the forest beyond the base's 8-foot, deer-proof fence. They didn't know, and had a sergeant of the guard check it out. He reported it was just practice.
Still, they had orders.
"We're watching three guys come down the road, and they tried to start coming over the fence," he said. "At that spot, I had the most rank, so I'm down there really quick with a couple of other guys, telling them to get off the fence because, if you come in, we have to shoot you. And then we did. I mean, we had orders. If they weren't with us, in our unit, they didn't belong near the missile. And if they insisted, we shoot them."
The army specialist did not shoot the G.I.s, though. He showed his pistol to the soldiers, who thought it was all part of the practice.
"They said, are you guys on the blue team or the red team? We said, we're not on either team. You can't come in here," Rosch said. "They didn't believe us, so I showed them a live round. I had one of the guys show him an M14 round, too. They were smart enough to get off the fence and headed through the woods in another direction. I imagine when they got back to post they had some interesting stories. And if they came back a week later, we were gone. There was nothing out there."
The unit was entirely mobile, Rosch said, with everything on tracks, including the computers and power stations so they could go anywhere. Still, the unit members were restricted in their movement.
"There were certain places in West Germany we couldn't go. We had to have a security clearance. We had to stay so many kilometers back from the border. They didn't want any information to get into the wrong hands," he said. "One guy in particular was court-martialed for giving some of our secrets to a German fellow, who we assume was a spy."
Rosch's unit was later selected as the best there, and given a special assignment in Albuquerque.
"I'm one of the few people who has actually fired three missiles at Texas," he said, with a chuckle. "And we hit Texas all three times. We fired from Utah to White Sands. We took the nuke off and put a dummy warhead on it."
The three missiles, all real, were tracked by civilians and all traffic was stopped in case the missile came down, Rosch added.
"We got held up in the middle because there was a bus broke down in there," he said. "We had to stop and wait until they towed the bus out. Then we pressed the Go button."
The experience was an interesting one for Rosch, whose unit before had only done exercises in Germany.
"We had worked with (the missile) for so long and never actually fired one," he said. "There wasn't a range long enough in Europe for us to actually fire it over there."
For practice, only dummy warheads were used, but the nuclear warheads were kept next to the missiles, in a cradle. Rosch said his unit could launch four nuclear missiles within 15 minutes. And theirs wasn't the only such unit in Germany.
"It was more of a Big Stick kind of thing," he said. "It was the Cold War times, and there was a weapon waiting for you if you caused any trouble."
Shortly after he returned to Germany in 1967, Rosch's tour ended. Before leaving, he was told his duties were classified and he could never speak of them.
"It was pretty hush-hush stuff. The nuclear weapons we had were pretty powerful," he said. "It was interesting for a dumb farm kid from Crawford County to get involved in all that. I didn't realize there were things like that in the world."
Rosch returned home to his wife and child, and resumed his college education to become a teacher. Before he graduated, though, his wife passed away. He came to Fort Dodge in 1970, and it has been his home since. He taught for 36 years in the public school system, and for the last eight years has taught at St. Edmond Catholic Schools. Recently, he returned with his daughter to the place where she was born, and where he had served his country.
He remarried 15 years ago.